Finding the Balance:
Supporting Your Family While Pastoring a Small Church
by Ken Hinkley

Plaques. Wall hangings. Decoration pieces with witty sayings or Bible verses. These all remind us of something we felt significant at the time we put them there. Maybe it made a good point, or else it held some sentimental significance, like the one given to me by a former pastor’s wife that simply says “Jesus” on it. Every time I see that handcrafted piece, it reminds me of the pastor who had the most impact on my early years.

Like you, there are other such things scattered around my house. Even here in my office, I look around and discover there are no less than six plaques or notes posted in various places. Some are prominently displayed, and some are simply note cards pinned to a bulletin board. All of them stand as sentinels as I work at my desk, looking over my shoulder to keep me on track.

Perhaps the most valuable one to my ministry as a local pastor in a rural community is the one that displays a pledge I took when I entered the ministry more than twenty-five years ago. It is entitled “A Christian Pastor’s Pledge” and lists for me several things I vowed to do or to be as a pastor. I reread this pledge periodically to keep myself on track and to attempt to live a life that will leave a spiritual and practical impact on those I serve through my position as a Pastor.

One of the items on the list is, “I will work to support myself and the ministry, if necessary, to prevent any false accusations of selfishness.” I put this on the list and keep it posted in view on purpose. What is said in this statement keeps me humble before the Lord and the people of my church.

Someone once remarked to me that I was a tentmaker when he found out that I had a day job outside the ministry. I knew what he was talking about, but jokingly answered that I knew nothing about making a tent, but a lot about making a living. The point is well made that many rural pastors find themselves in such a position. They work forty hours or more in some other capacity, which minimizes their effectiveness in ministry.

Supporting ourselves is important and necessary. We need to provide for ourselves and our families the basic necessities of life. There are certain things we can’t live without, and in our complex and connected world, those basics seem to have expanded a great deal. It used to be said that if we had food to eat, a place to stay and were in good health, that was all we needed. But that is no longer so. Our necessities list has grown to include insurances of several kinds, a reliable form of transportation (or two), internet and smartphone connections, and a  new wardrobe every year or so. I look around me and ask, ‘What could I live without?’ And there is not much I would cut from what I have.

With such a lengthy list, it is no wonder pastors like you and me have to work outside the ministry. Statistically, the average rural church has a congregation of fifty people or less. Those few contributors to the Lord’s ministry do not offer enough in the collection plate to provide for the cost of doing ministry AND a decent salary for the pastor. That is a fact of life in small churches. Perhaps you are one of those pastors that know all too well the economic impact of the situation. Perhaps you are one of those that receive what amounts to a token salary. You are paid just enough to make you appreciate it, but only enough to meet one bill among several you will have to pay this week.

There are pastors who work on the side to help make ends meet. They see the need to be a responsible husband, father, and leader. He assumes the God-given responsibility seriously enough to earn an income to pay expenses. His motive is to be obedient to the Lord in this matter and not put his family in a position of want and poverty simply because he wants to focus on ministry. That is commendable and good. The members of his church should be supportive of that decision, realizing that it is because they are a small church that he is put in this position.

The problem that many well-intentioned men have is that they may get bitten by the bug of prosperity and let the desire for more interfere with their relationship with both God and the church. Often a man will take on a position outside the ministry and does well enough in that work such that he is offered a higher position, more pay, and other perks. He must be very careful not to fall into the trap of the love of money. He must not lose sight of the reason he works at that company in the first place is to provide the basics necessary for life in the twenty-first century, not to accumulate wealth.

When I worked part-time at a grocery store, I did my work to the best of my ability and went over and above when I felt it benefited the company and my department. Over a period of time, I was offered a higher position several times. I could have taken that promotion and still be able to have my Sundays off to serve the Lord. But to do so, I would have had to conduct the business in a way that would have been unfair to my fellow workers. It would have also fed the lie that I needed more. Since the combination of my ministry salary, my employment earnings and that of my dear wife, we did not lack anything. Neither did we have an abundance.  For some men, the motive is to be obedient and be the provider for the family.

For other men, the motive may be different. I know one pastor that took on side jobs, not for personal gain, but to help pay for special needs for the ministry. If there were a budget shortfall or an unbudgeted item, he would take on a work project or a part-time, temporary job to help provide for that need. By doing this, he did two things. One, he set an example for other men in the church to follow. If he was willing to do what was necessary to meet the need, they could as well. But more importantly, he would be doing it to prevent any accusation that he was in the ministry for the money. (That’s a laugh, but some people actually believe it!) He would be imitating the Apostle Paul, who, after becoming a believer, refused to accept money from struggling churches and made tents to provide for himself and his companions. Integrity was at stake. Our integrity as pastors is always at stake when it comes to the topic of money. Are we willing to accept the responsibility of seeing that our families and our ministries are sufficiently financed for basic needs?

Now a word to older pastors among us. Some of us are past the age of active employment and are living on a fixed income in addition to our meager salaries. We are not in a good position to supplement our income by manual labor. What are we to do?

The simple answer is to trust God. That is so easy to say, but this concept should be infused into our lives so deeply by the time we reach our senior years that it comes naturally. As young men struggling with the financial and practical needs of our homes and families, we should have developed a trust in God all along the way. When an accident happens, and we have no money, where do we turn? When our job is lost, who is our counselor? When a child needs braces or special medical attention, to whom do we go for help? Pastors should know and practice the advice we give our people on a regular basis. Go to God and trust Him for the outcome. Learning to trust comes through repeated practice, yet it is never easy.

My wife and I have seen the Lord meet our needs time after time, often from sources unexpected. We never questioned God’s ability to provide and stand amazed in the way He has come through. Keeping in mind the Lord’s promise to meet our needs and to bless our faith has carried us through. Older pastors, don’t give up and keep on trusting the Lord to provide. Younger pastors, I urge you to make a similar pledge to do what is necessary to meet and provide. God will honor you and your faith.

Make a pledge, and while you’re at it, make plaque.